The final college football game of the 2017 calendar year will be played Saturday night in Miami between the runners-up in the ACC and Big Ten Championship Games. This one should be a good one as Wisconsin heads south to play the suddenly resurgent Miami Hurricanes.
Despite a banner season in Miami with the first trip to an ACC Championship Game, Miami is looking to turn things back in the right direction after ending the regular season with a disappointing loss on the road against Pittsburgh and looking like a team still with a long way to go when it comes to competing for an ACC title based on the lackluster performance against Clemson in Charlotte about a month ago.
Despite how the season has gone in the last two weeks, Miami head coach Mark Richt clearly looks as though he has the Hurricanes back and ready to take the steps necessary to get back to the top of the college football food chain. This season has been one of progress, but it has also shown there is still work to be done before Miami can truly be thought of as a national contender. Getting to the ACC Championship Game was a hurdle that was finally passed, and now Miami gets a chance to end the season at home against a strong opponent in Wisconsin.
The Badgers also enter this game wondering "what if" after having an undefeated season blown up in the Big Ten Championship Game by Ohio State. It is the second season Wisconsin has played for and lost the Big Ten title. Last year, Wisconsin still managed to play in a New Year's Six bowl game when the Badgers took on and beat Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl. This year, the Badgers are back on the New Year's Six stage facing a more attractive opponent. Can they manage to win their second straight New Year's Six matchup and thereby extend their winning streak to four straight bowl games? If the Badgers do, it will be the first time in school history Wisconsin has won a bowl game in four consecutive seasons.
Capital One Orange Bowl: Wisconsin vs. Miami
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 30 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Hard Rock Stadium (Miami)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Wisconsin -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Wisconsin's running game keep chugging against the Canes?
The Badgers' bread and butter all season long has been the advantage they can build using the ground game. With freshman Jonathan Taylor (above, right) having a fantastic debut season in Madison with a Big Ten-leading 1,847 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, Wisconsin showed once again it can keep the running game highly productive and efficient even when it has to replace key players. Don't forget that Taylor took over for Corey Clement, who graduated last year after rushing for 1,375 yards and 15 touchdowns. Running the ball has rarely been an issue for Wisconsin over the years whether the head coach was Barry Alvarez or Bret Bielema and now Paul Chryst (we can skip over Gary Andersen).
Despite the success running the football this season, it was that part of the offense that didn't materialize in the Big Ten Championship Game. For the first time all season, the Badgers struggled on the ground and finished with just 60 rushing yards against Ohio State. Taylor was limited to 41 yards and was kept out of the end zone. Miami's rushing defense has certainly been exposed at times this season with three straight games of more than 200 yards on the ground allowed, although one of those was against option-oriented Georgia Tech. Clemson may have managed just 77 rushing yards, but the Tigers also scored four times on the ground in their 38-3 ACC Championship Game victory over the Hurricanes.
2. Will there be a home-field advantage for Miami?
The Hurricanes are one of the few teams this season playing their bowl game in the same stadium they play their home games. That may be a nice benefit for Miami, who has certainly enjoyed bringing Hard Rock Stadium to life in the bigger games this season. And with the stadium recently being renovated and upgraded, playing games in Hard Rock Stadium has not been this electrifying in years for the Hurricanes.
Miami is undefeated at home this season and has have won the last three by no fewer than 18 points. The highlights of the season were a 28-10 victory against No. 22 Virginia Tech on Nov. 4 and the 41-8 drubbing of No. 14 Notre Dame on national TV the following week. Wisconsin fans will travel well, but the 'Canes could have a bit of a home-field advantage supporting them in this game, with fake turnover chains everywhere in the stands.
3. Can Miami make big plays happen against the Badgers' defense?
One thing the Hurricanes have been known to do in their biggest wins of the season has been to make some big plays on offense. Miami has run 68 plays of 20 or more yards this season, third most among ACC teams. Wide receiver Braxton Berrios always seems to be there to make a big play happen for Miami, and he should be a key player to watch against Wisconsin. The Badgers, however, are not a team that tends to give up a ton of big plays to their opponents. The Badgers lead the Big Ten in fewest plays of 20 or more yards allowed. Something may have to give. If Miami is going to beat Wisconsin, the Canes will need some big plays on offense to stay on the field at some point.
Say what you will about Wisconsin's schedule this season, but the Badgers didn't go 12-0 by accident. They used a good mix of their defense and running game to overpower many of their opponents along the way. They just could not do that against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game, because everything Wisconsin is capable of doing, Ohio State is equipped to do even better. That may not be quite the case for Miami at this point in time. The Hurricanes took tremendous strides forward this season in being able to take care of their schedule, but also showed they are far from invincible with an ugly loss against a mediocre Pittsburgh team and after getting thoroughly outplayed by Clemson in the ACC Championship Game. In fact, the conference title games were eye-openers for both teams, but this matchup offers a clean slate with a chance to end the season on the right note. There will be no reason to deviate from the game plan for the Badgers, and the running game will have a more productive outing compared to the Big Ten title game. It may be a slow start for both teams, but Wisconsin will manage to keep a couple more drives going in the end to get a win.
Prediction: Wisconsin 26, Miami 23
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.